School business professionals need to embrace professional development if they are to meet the challenge of a dramatically transformed school landscape, explains Val Andrew
I often reflect on the situation I found myself in back the early 2000s when I started studying the National College for School Leadership’s new SBM development programmes.
I thought it would be impossible to persuade my little primary school to embrace the SBM role. By virtue of CPD (the certificate in school business management – my first step on the CPD journey) I gained the confidence to challenge the very traditional thinking within my school and make a strong case for them to offer this role at leadership level and give me a chance.
The moral of the story is: never underestimate the value and potential of professional development to help steer your career direction – and help you adapt to the ever-changing school landscape.
The challenges presented by MATs
This is more important today than ever before. Since 2010, when the academy programme went into a higher gear, there has been a raft of new challenges for SBM professionals in the form of more complex financial operating, reporting and monitoring.
MATs are more numerous and are increasing in size, mainly to improve student attainment and achieve greater financial efficiency. Although the most recent government stats show that MATs of between three and 10 schools are the most common, there has been a seven per cent increase in the number of larger MATs with between 11 and 20 schools.
The increasing reach and scope of MATs is creating further challenges for our profession. Once again, we are having to focus on what it means for us – and how we should adapt. There are now SBL roles with a plethora of titles and responsibilities to reflect these changes. The Academies Financial Handbook talks about the role of the chief financial officer – who is the finance director, business manager, or equivalent, and who plays both a technical and leadership role.
There are job adverts appearing for chief operating officers fulfilling strategic, business-related roles and responsibilities within large trusts and, equally, there are still individual schools looking to recruit single-post SBMs to fulfil generic roles that incorporate a mix of strategic and operational responsibilities, in a wide range of business disciplines. There are also an increasing number of specialist roles – all under the ‘umbrella’ of business responsibility – particularly within large trusts.
One key issue is that, while some MATs want to replicate a commercial board structure, many others are looking to accommodate existing people with the necessary skills in various roles, as more schools come together. All this in a climate where the reality of centralisation, and the quest for even tighter financial efficiency, results in the inevitable culling of many support staff roles. There really is no ‘one-size fits all’ model that fits every scenario.
Opening up opportunities
Many SBLs are, naturally, apprehensive about what all this means for them and their careers; others see these changes as an opportunity to broaden their skills and competencies and achieve personal and professional sustainability. What does all this mean for school business professionals? Despite the uncertainty, and the ongoing staffing restructures, these changes can open up real opportunities.
The sheer variety of roles now available gives practitioners the chance to develop a range of skills and experiences within different educational settings; it could mean exploring a specialist area or operating as a generalist with responsibility across the range of business areas.
So, for SBLs, it’s time to apply some due diligence at a personal level and find out what’s happening locally and what opportunities might be on the horizon. Are neighbouring MAT schools on a growth trajectory, or is a local group of schools contemplating forming one? What might the structures look like and what opportunities might there be? Remember, there’s no magic model formula for what a leadership structure might look like within a MAT setting, so look to develop a range of options – that’s what SBLs are really good at; seeking out a problem and presenting a range of solutions.
There are other key questions to ask yourself, such as:
- Do I need to brush up on my skills to make my CV more attractive?
- How can I keep my skills fit for purpose in this changing environment?
- What extra competencies might I need to develop or hone?
Using the ISBL professional standards will certainly guide you through this conundrum, as well as helping you to confidently lead your schools through changing, challenging times.